Misusing the word


Sermon for Sunday, November 24th, 2019


Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43


There is a great line from the movie The Princess Bride, where the character Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, responds to another character’s constant misuse of the word “inconceivable” by saying: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”


It is such a great line and Patinkin’s character is so memorable, that whenever I hear someone overusing or misusing a word or phrase, Inigo Montoya jumps into my head saying: “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”


Words can mean different things to different people. The power of language is that it can transfer meanings and idea and thoughts from one person to another, but we must recognize that the weakness of language is that there is always some translation and interpretation going on. If you have studied another language, or if you speak another language, then you probably know that there are some words that simply do not easily translate from one language to another; there just is not an equivalent word, so you have to use several English words to try to convey the same idea. For instance, the French words terroir or milieu, both somewhat complex ideas that don’t have an equivalent English word.


But even within the same language, sometimes we have a hard time communicating because what a word means to me, may not be the same thing as it means to you. And I’m not just talking about regional dialect differences here. I’m willing to bet that most of you know that the word “Yankee” has very different connotations if you grow up South of the Mason-Dixon Line, than if you grow up in the Northeast. But there are other words that have different meanings and connotations for each of us based upon our own lives and our own history and our own baggage. There are two such words in our gospel today.


The first of these words is the first word our Lord utters from the cross. The first thing that Jesus says after his hands of been nailed to the cross is a powerful word that has powerful meanings for each one of us: “Father.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” That is the first thing that Jesus says from the cross. Father. It is such a powerful, meaningful word. If you are looking at someone’s genealogy or family tree, then you know that father means “male biological parent.” But you know and I know that the word means so much more than that.


Those of us who have had the good fortune to have good and loving fathers will probably find the word comforting and reassuring. For us, father, means someone that is nurturing, loving, protecting. But we live in a world of broken human beings, and not everyone has had that kind of a father. Some people may hear the word father and think abuse. Some may think absence. What you think of when you hear the word father, may not be what I think of. What you think it means, may not be what I think it means.


So when Jesus consistently uses the word father, to talk about God, as he does throughout the gospels in his teachings, as he did when he taught us to pray saying “Our Father,” and as he does today, pleading from the cross, we need to pay attention to the kind of father he is talking about. What does this word “father” mean to Jesus when he says it? We need to look over our own baggage for a minute; put aside whatever your own relationship with your father is, if indeed you even have one and pay attention to the relationship that Jesus has with the one he calls father. What does that word mean to Jesus?


The other word that we get in the gospel today is a word that was written in three different languages on a sign nailed over Jesus’s head. King. It was meant as a cruel joke. Kings are supposed to have power and glory and strength. A great king was a symbol of a great kingdom. To shame and bring down a king was to shame and bring down his people. And that’s what Pilate wanted to do. Pilate wanted to humiliate the Jews by putting a sign over a beaten, dying man that said: “this is their king.”


Kings should be strong. Kings should be able to save themselves and their people. What could this man do? That is why the people kept taunting him. “Save yourself if you are the Messiah” the leaders of the temple jeered. “Save yourself if you are the King” the soldiers yelled between their perverse fits of laughter. Even one of the thieves crucified next to him drew a painful, dying breath to add his voice to those mocking Jesus: “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!”


This was no king like the kings of the earth. The only crown he ever wore was the crown of thorns. There was no precious ermine collared cloak. No diamonds, no gold. No vast estate, no treasure chests, no earthly glory at all. The world would never use the word “king” to describe this man. That’s why it was a joke. Only maybe the joke was on us.


Maybe we were the ones who got the meaning of the word wrong. Maybe the things that we associate with kings: power and glory, riches and excess, maybe these things have very little to do with what it really means to be a king. Just like it may be possible for us to misunderstand the word “Father,” so too maybe we are likely to misunderstand the word “king.” Maybe the word doesn’t mean what we think it means.


One person recognized that on Calvary’s hill on that first Good Friday. The thief that was able to admit that he had done wrong, was also the one who was able to recognize that he had been wrong. He was the first to see that the word king might mean something different to God than it does to humans. That word “king” that was hanging over Jesus’s head, well it wasn’t a joke to this man. The thief saw a blameless man that was willing to suffer for others, willing to forgive, willing to love the most unlovable people and he had a moment of conversion, he thought: “yes, that is what a king really is.” I want to know this father that this man keeps calling out to; I want to see the world the way he sees it. This is what a king really is and if that is true then I really want to be a part of his kingdom. The thief is the only one there that actually believes that Jesus has a kingdom, and he is the one that Jesus promises will join him there.


Those that mocked Jesus got no reply. But the one that humbly asked to be a part of his kingdom, well to that one paradise was promised.


Today is the Feast of Christ the King. We celebrate and proclaim Christ as our Lord and King above all others today. It is good that we should do so. Being a part of his kingdom should mean more to us than being a citizen of any earthly kingdom or nation. We should celebrate it. But in doing so let us be mindful that this kingdom doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world and this king doesn’t look or act like most kings on earth. The word king means something different to him than it does to us.

Some people would like for us to stop using these tricky words like “Father” and “King” because they want to avoid misunderstanding who and what God is. I disagree. In the first place, they are words that Jesus uses, and I have to think that he probably used them for a reason. In the second, well maybe the fact that these words have such baggage and various meanings, means that I am always having to readjust my own understanding of them; I am always having to remind myself that the way Jesus sees the world is not necessarily the way that I see it.


I think it might be better to let Jesus define what a father is and what a king is, and then adjust my understanding accordingly. Maybe I am the one misusing the word.


Oriented Towards Giving


Sermon for November 17th, 2019


Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

So I brought a little friend with me this morning. I don’t often preach with props, but today I just couldn’t resist.


This is the Apostle Paul. I had this doll special made for some classes that I am teaching for the Diocese. I had to have him custom made, because, and you may find this hard to believe, there isn’t a huge demand for Apostle Paul dolls. For some reason, when people think of cuddly Christian figures, the Apostle Paul is not someone that quickly comes to mind. I just don’t get it.


Maybe it is because this man said things like: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Maybe it is because he said things like: we command you beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition they received from us. Maybe it is lines like “some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.

Actually I totally get it. Paul can be hard for some people to take. He isn’t always burdened by a sensitivity to people’s feelings. I have a deep love for the Apostle Paul now, but it is a love that was hard won. Paul says some difficult things sometimes. He can be blunt, he can be gruff. He is kind of an equal opportunity offender. At some point, in one of his letters he is likely to say something to offend you. Stick with him though, because Paul very often will say things that we need to hear. Sometimes we need someone to call us out and remind us of things we have forgotten.

It is important to remember that Paul was a convert. Now all of the disciples were converts of a sort, but Paul came late to the game. Paul was a persecutor of the church before he was a member of it, so as a convert; he has a unique perspective and a missionary zeal that people that were raised in the church or people that have been longtime followers of Jesus don’t always share. When you have been working in the church for a long time, it is very easy to lose the enthusiasm you may have once had. Frustrations and setbacks and personalities, they can all wear you down, and you can forget what a treasure you have been given. It is easy to become weary in doing what is right. Sometimes you need someone to remind you of what this thing called church is all about, and converts, adult converts are usually the best ones to do that, because they haven’t learned to take anything for granted yet. For them Christianity isn’t just an old habit, for them it is an active choice.

That is one of the things that makes Paul so great; he is a convert to the church. And when he wrote letters to churches, he was usually writing to remind them of something vital they seemed to have forgotten. I have learned to love this man, because despite his flaws and his personality, so often when I read him, he reminds me of things that I am liable to forget. And sometimes, he can be very blunt about it.

In his epistle today Paul says: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. When I hear Paul say that there is part of me that rejoices and part of me that cringes. The part that rejoices is the part of me that is a workaholic. It is the part of me that appreciates how much we rely as a church on the labors of a core of dedicated people that are committed to this place and that this church could not survive without.

The part that cringes is the part of me that wants to be welcoming and gracious and understanding. Paul just sounds insensitive here. I wouldn’t stand up and say something like that at the potluck supper. Its tempting, but I wouldn’t do it. But even though Paul’s words might make us squirm a little, I think we need to hear them, because believe it or not, he isn’t just talking about some idle people in one parish centuries ago; he is addressing something that is an important part of who we are as Christians now.

Paul’s underlying point is this: Christians must be people that are oriented toward giving. Giving must be a fundamental part of who we are. If we don’t understand that in the small things; we won’t understand it in the big things. That is why Paul warns the church to stay away from people that are just looking for what they can get. Beware, he says, of people that only want to take from the community and don’t want to give back. Because that is not the example we have been given. Not by Paul, and not by Jesus.

We give, because of what we have been given. Salvation has been given to us; forgiveness has been given to us; communion with God and eternal life these things have been given to us, and we are here to share them with others. Giving must be a fundamental part of who we are as Christians. So giving is a spiritual act.

And it is important to remember that we aren’t giving just to keep the lights on or the altar richly adorned. Temples, all temples, serve a purpose. They are places where we gather, where we share, where we learn, and where we grow, but they are always a means to an end. They are tools to be used to proclaim the gospel, but they aren’t idols to be worshipped. There will come a day when temples will be no more. There will come a day when we will stand before the Lord and all that will matter will be our relationship with him.

We don’t need to be worried about that day or live in fear of it. It will come when it will come. But in the meantime, we have work to do. We have people that need to be encouraged and comforted. We have a world that needs to hear about forgiveness and grace. We have people living without hope, and we have people that have placed all their hope on the wrong things. Our faith reminds us about how much we have been given by God, and our work is to share that faith with others. It’s ok if we convert a few adults like Paul along the way. Sometimes we need the zeal and the insight of a convert to give us a good kick in the pants and to remind us of the importance of the work we are doing.

The Passing Bells


Sermon for Sunday, November 10th, 2019.

Remembrance Sunday


Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38


There was a miniseries produced by the BBC a few years ago called “The Passing Bells.” The title was based on a line from a Wilfred Owen Poem called ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’ “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” The miniseries followed the lives of British and German soldiers during the First World War. It was a pretty good series, but whoever made the last five minutes, well God bless them. You don’t even have to watch the whole show, but if you watch the last five minutes you will see a vision that will break your heart wide open. Let me try and paint the scene for you:


It early November 1918, they last days of the First World War, the most horrific battle the world had ever seen. Millions are dead; millions of lives destroyed and families ruined. It’s the last day of the war. In a distant city, the distinguished leaders are trying to hammer out the terms of the armistice, working out the details to make it all end neatly on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Meanwhile in the trenches, men are still fighting and dying. On one side is a young British soldier that we have been following throughout the war; on the other side, his young German counterpart. They both get drawn into a one-on-one battle in no-man’s land. They are wrestling back and forth while their friends on either side watch in the distance. Just then a wire comes through that the war is over. Hostilities have ended. Only word can’t get to our two young men fighting it out between the trenches. They are each fighting for so many things: for their loved ones, for their countries and for their own lives. They are both determined and brave and strong, and in the last moments of the struggle one grabs a knife and the other his gun, and just as the knife hits its target, a trigger is pulled, and both soldiers lie dead on the ground, and the war is over.


Two bodies lay side by side in the bloody mud. But then, the camera focuses on two little red poppies growing up in front of the two dead bodies. The bodies become a blur all you can see are the poppies. And then, there is movement in the background. Our two soldiers get up and embrace each other. And then one by one you see all these other soldiers getting up, the British and the Germans and they are all standing up, the entire field, as if the director had just yelled cut and the actors were all heading home. They get up and they laugh and smile and they begin to walk off in the distance arm in arm. And the field is full of little red poppies. And then the scene changes and the poppies turn into a field of little white crosses, a war cemetery, a field of graves of young soldiers who still lie in wait for that glorious day.


I must admit, that scene turns me into a weeping mess. But it isn’t just sadness or despair that I feel; it is also hope, and joy. It’s like I feel everything at once, because whether they knew it our not, whoever made that scene created a powerful vision of my faith. When I see that field of crosses it is like I am standing in the valley of dry bones, and I can hear the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel asking “Can these bones live?” God shows Ezekiel the answer: yes. These bones can, and will, live again.


There is this crazy belief that shows up again and again in ancient scriptures; it is the belief that there will be a future day, when the dead will rise again. Not in some creepy, spooky way as ghosts or zombies, but as bodies that are given new, restored flesh; the image of all that God created them to be. No more pain or suffering. Called from their graves and called to stand before their creator. Ignorance and hatred and animosity, all gone. Nothing left but truth. People can finally see each other for what they really are.


Now you could say that this was just a nice way for the filmmakers to put a happy ending on a terrible story. You could say that the dead are just dead and that there is little or no meaning to the tragedy and struggle of human life. You could say that, plenty of people do. Plenty of people think that the only thing that matters is what happens right here and right now. But I’m not so sure.


In the Book of Job, probably one of the oldest books in the Bible, Job, who is a good and righteous man, suffers in body, mind and spirit, yet as he is suffering he has the power to say:


For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,


You have probably heard those words from the Book of Job before, only they might sound more familiar to you in the old translation:


I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.


Those words of Job are some of the first words we say as a part of our funeral service. Our funerals begin with the words of Jesus where he says: “I am the Resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”


Then we jump right back to those words of Job, words that no doubt Jesus knew very well:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”


There it is: this crazy belief. Dead bodies in some distant, blessed future day, coming back to life. What a hard thing to believe. To be able to look at a field of grave markers and see young men and women getting up; pulling themselves up out of the mud, holding on to each other again and standing in the sun. Is this just some director’s idea of how to end a tragic historical drama? Is this just an ancient myth, or is there more here?


The Christian answer, is that there is more here. In our creed, we say we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The resurrection of the body. I become a puddle when I watch those soldiers getting up in the field, because for me that is a vision of my faith. When I stand in the midst of a field of crosses I want to see bodies that are about to get up and stand in the sun again. Maybe that seems hard to believe; sometimes death is more real to us than resurrection. Maybe you are afraid to believe it; because people will think you are crazy, or make fun of you for believing something so impossible as dead bodies coming back to life. Sadly, there will always be those people that are all too prepared to mock you for this crazy belief. Even people that are otherwise faithful and good will think you are crazy for thinking that the dead will rise again.


In Jesus’s day, there was a whole sect called the Sadducees, that worshipped God, but didn’t believe in the Resurrection. They made fun of Jesus for believing in everlasting life. In our gospel reading today, they are making fun of Jesus, not asking a serious question about marriage. They are making fun of his belief by asking that if a woman has been married seven times, and then dies and then rises again, who will she belong to? Jesus’s answer is priceless. He says: she will belong to God. She will belong to God. Those who are raised up on that day, will belong to God. And God will do all the sorting. God will know who belongs to him.


Today is Remembrance Sunday, and as is our custom here, we take this time to remember the men and women that have given their lives fighting for what they thought was right. We remember people who sacrificed everything for liberties that we so often take for granted. We remember them, and we should remember and give thanks for them, but we don’t do this just as citizens, we are Christians, and this is Sunday and this is Church. We need to remember them, but we need to remember them as people that gather to witness and proclaim the resurrection of the dead every week. God has not just told us, God has shown us what he is going to do with the dead in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And Christ has promised us, that he will never lose anything that belongs to him. We say it in our creed, we proclaim it at our funerals; the vision of that future day when the dead will be raised is not just the extra ending tacked onto the story, it is the story.


I am not here today, we are not here today, to just remember past tragedies and lives lost. We are not here to whitewash the pain and destruction of war and human sinfulness. We are here to give thanks to God, that human history is not going to end with soldiers lying dead in a field. Human history is going to end with God’s children standing in the sun once more and forever.